The new Nissan Z is one of the most important models in the carmaker’s recent history – not for any specific business reason (two-seater sports cars aren’t big sellers), but because even a car company needs a soul.
Nissan has been through some tough times over the past four or five years. Former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was arrested in 2018. His business suffered from an aging product range, driven largely by Ghosn’s focus on fleet sales rather than consumer enthusiasm. The company’s chief designer, Alfonso Albaisa, said last year he was “disgusted”. Even then-Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa had to admit in 2019 that the company had hit “bottom.”
But Nissan has made a comeback with fresh vehicles like the new Pathfinder and Rogue SUVs. With its focus on style and excitement, the Z promises to become something of a spiritual center for this revival effort. The creation of this new car, with its lines reminiscent of Nissan sports cars of the past, was something that helped rally the company, Albaisa told me at the new Z’s unveiling last year.
I recently had the opportunity to sit in his driver’s seat for hundreds of miles on freeways and winding back roads. The new Z proved a surprisingly personable long-term companion, offering real comfort on the long, boring stretches but offering excitement when the road invited it.
Once a year, four of my brothers, three of whom own classic cars, meet somewhere for a few days to drive. I join them as often as I can. I had been planning for months to meet her in a small town in the northwest corner of Maryland this year. Just a week before our Airbnb reservation was due to start, I received an email from Nissan that a Z, one of the pre-production cars, would be available for me to test drive, but it was only available for a weekend. This weekend.
Sometimes things just fit together perfectly.
I was soon driving down I-95 into Baltimore, where I would turn west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Z was a comfortable cruiser with a spacious interior for two and plenty of cargo space. Almost the first thing that struck me, however, was that the steering wheel had an unusually large diameter for a sports car. Also, it didn’t offer quite as much road feel as I expected from a sports car during this freeway drive.
But power was plentiful. The Z’s 400-horsepower, turbocharged V6 loves to go fast and feels better the higher it revs. I had to work hard to keep it from hitting its 7,000rpm limit in first gear because it just felt so good to let go and pull the car faster. My car had a six-speed manual with a nice short shifter. A 9-speed automatic is also available.
As I pulled into the driveway of our West Maryland Airbnb, my brothers came out to see the Z (and hopefully I did too, but got the car most of the attention.) We agreed it was an excellent design that captures the feel of the classic in a modern form. The front end, with its pointed nose and rectangular grille, is clearly reminiscent of the 240Z from the early ’70s, the originator of the line. The taillights are reminiscent of the blocky taillights on the much later 280ZX and 300ZX.
We spent Saturday watching classic car racing at Summit Point Motorsports Park across the river in West Virginia. On Sunday we drove to Shenandoah National Park to drive the famous Skyline Drive that meanders along the mountains.
The Z felt right at home, the steering better in the corners than I expected. The short shift lever made shifting in the manual transmission quick and easy. A push of a button near the shifter activated the RPM Adaptation Technology, which automatically matched the engine RPM to the gear I selected, allowing for smoother shifts. I preferred to leave it out.
The Z whipped through corners and shot out onto the straights. At street speeds, the car’s weight felt well balanced, while the driver’s seat felt like I was driving just slightly behind the car’s center of gravity. The V6 made a fantastic sound whenever I had the chance to run it hard, with the hum of the turbocharger being drowned out by the roar of internal combustion as the power went up.
The Nissan Z Performance I drove would cost around $50,000. The cheapest version of the Z, the Z Sport, costs about $10,000 less but has the same engine and transmission choices as the car I drove. (These sticker prices don’t include surcharges, which dealers will almost certainly add.) While I was parked at an overlook, someone, telling me they’d just ordered a Toyota Supra, asked me which I liked better. Since it had been a while since I last drove a Supra, it was hard to say. Also, Toyota recently added a manual gearbox to the Supra as an option, which balances things out more. In terms of style, at least, the Z wins slightly in my opinion.
A few years ago I did a similar ride in a Chevrolet Corvette, which has more horsepower and an engine behind the seats, like a supercar. It also costs more than $10,000 more. While the Corvette offers amazing performance, the Z was a nicer long-term companion with its simpler controls and easier to envision day-to-day driving.
As Nissan prepares for the next big step and launches its first electric SUV, the Ariya, the Z offers a welcome throwback. With its burning power, sharp handling and relatively affordable price tag, it captures a kind of excitement for Nissan and all of us that may soon be crossing the horizon.
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